John Borthwick

The Hana Highway, Hawaii’s most beautiful drive, is making a fool of me. This tenacious, twisting road clings to the northeast coast of the island of Maui for 100 dramatic kilometers and on its way crosses 59 bridges and winds through 620 bends.It starts from the sugar-and-surf town of Pa’ia on the north shore, heading towards Hana village out on the eastern tip of Maui. A late afternoon downpour soon unloads, reminding me of why a rain forest, through which I am driving, is so named. And now, as the light fades towards dusk, I can’t find the headlights on this rental car that I just picked up.

The Hana Highway with its dozens of one-lane bridges is a polite highway. Cars must slow to a crawl if not a halt at each bridge, giving way to oncoming vehicles, which is usually done with a friendly wave that is returned by both Hawaiian and haole (white) drivers. Meanwhile, back at the dashboard, I’m feeling far from polite about my un-lit vehicle. Where is that bloody light switch?

This serpentine road that was carved out of the volcanic coastal cliffs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries allows me brief glimpses down to little coastal villages like Wailua. Meanwhile, the rain and forest are closing in, along with the deepening dusk. It looks like I’m going to have to lose face big-time, to play the Completely Stupid Haole Just Off the Plane and flag down some gnarly but cool local dude and mumble, “Shucks. I can’t operate these-here left-hand drive headlights.” But just as the dusk fades to black — eureka! — I find the switch. Don’t ask. It was “hidden” right in front of my nose.

The old ranching village of Hana is surrounded by black sand beaches and is shaded by palms, volcanic plugs and a chapel spire. Instead of the high-rise condominiums that dominate other shorelines in Maui, Hana is still easily recognizable as the tranquil, verdant place to which the old Hawaiian nobles once came for healing and rest. Its Hasegawa General Store, with its tin roof and anarchic aisles, is almost a place of legend, an island institution where you can find everything from postcards and parsnips to chainsaws and flip-flops while you rub shoulders with those gnarly-cool locals.

“Holo-holo” is Hawaiian for day-tripping, which is what I do for the next few days while based at Hana. Eastern Maui is dominated by the great volcanic mountain, Haleakala — “the House of the Sun” — with small villages, sacred pools and hidden valleys being the scenic epaulets, so to speak, on the shoulders of this 3055-meter giant. I wander, exploring its landscape of pastures, old plantations and a wave-battered coast.

When it comes time to re-trace my route to Pa’ia, the Hana Highway (which is on the US National Register of Historic Places) shows me it’s kinder side. The sun is out. Waterfalls bloom beside the road. Doves and mongooses flit or skitter among the trees, pecking at windfall feasts. The canopy that overhangs the road seems like a fruit salad forest, being laden with mango, breadfruit, banana, coconuts and red ginger. For good reason this fertile region has long been known as Heavenly Hana.

Pa’ia means “loud roar”, referring to the prevailing afternoon onshore winds and the giant winter surf breaking at the offshore reef nicknamed “Jaws”. At Ho’okipa Beach, east of Pa’ia, one person’s roar is another’s transport of delight. From the beach I watch a frenetic circuit of windsurfers and kitesurfers slash in, out and over the wind-whipped swells, their triangular sails like the vivid wings of butterfly’s-on-steroids.

I turn inland, up the slopes of sacred Haleakala, to the area known as plain “Upcountry”. In places here the landscape seems almost familiar, reminiscent of northern New South Wales, Australia, with sugarcane farms, huge eucalypts and jacaranda trees. Elsewhere, the old, rustic villages like Makawao have been prettified with pastels and B&B guesthouses, while the old paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) ranches have been gentrified to polo fields.

The historic whaling port of Lahaina on the west coast is far better known than Maui’s main commercial capital, Kahului. The Eagles even wove it, scathingly, into a song, The Last Resort,about new arrivals who “leave it all behind and sail to Lahaina”, just as the early missionaries did, bringing “the white man’s burden, the white man’s reign”.

The rambling Pioneer Inn, which looks like a classic Queensland country pub that’s had a good scrub-up, has stood on the Lahaina quay since the roaring days of 1901. Late one afternoon I settle in on its porch with an old Hawaiian friend, Pete and over a beer or three, we talk story and watch the sunset cruise boats shuttle in and out. The Inn’s timbers themselves almost talk, the rigging of yachts in the marina answers back and as the sun does its slo-mo sizzle into the sea, Pete tells me the Polynesian creation myth of Maui’s great mountain.

A cool but gnarly young demi-god named Maui once lassoed the sun as it raced across the sky and tethered it to a mountain peak. He wanted there to be more daylight for his mother to finish her tasks. The sun made a deal with Maui that, in return for its freedom, it would slow its passage across the sky and thus make the days last longer. Maui unshackled the sun from the mountain which then became known as Haleakala, the House of the Sun.